Learn about Martin Luther’s early life, how God prepared him to be an ideal figure to start the Reformation, and how He saved him from striving for righteousness through his works.
October 31st is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenburg, which is commonly regarded as the start of the Protestant Reformation. God used Martin Luther and the Reformation not just to bring many people and churches back to His word, but to shape the world in many ways.
We should take this milestone in history to look back and remember what God has done in the past. In this post we’ll give you some resource and ideas of how to do that on this, or any, Reformation Day. Also feel free to leave a comment and let us know how you celebrate.
1. Learn about Martin Luther
Reformation Day is a great opportunity to discover or remind yourself of the story of Martin Luther and the beginning of the Reformation. There are many resources on Luther, for children as well as adults. We suggest the account of Luther’s 95 Theses from History of the Reformation in the 16th Century by J. Merle d’Aubigné in Book III, Chapters 4, 5 and 6. You can find this for free at the Gutenberg Project.
Also stay tuned to Discerning History, we plan to post more video and written materials on Martin Luther over the next few days and weeks.
2. Read the 95 Theses
Reformation is the anniversary of Luther’s release of the 95 Theses. He intended them as propositions to be discussed in a formal academic debate. This never happened. Instead their publication caused a great stir, and it proved to be the first step towards Luther’s break with the Catholic church. You should consider reading them, or some of them this Reformation Day. You will see both how Luther held many core beliefs that were the foundation of the Reformation, and how unreformed Luther still was. Find them online here.
3. Review the Fundamentals of the Reformation
Reformation Day gives a great chance to review some of the fundamental doctrines of the Reformation – the doctrines of the inerrancy and sufficiency of scripture, the Five Solas of the Reformation, and TULIP, the Five Points of Calvinism. These are great ways to teach the Biblical doctrines of the Reformation to children.
4. Sing Reformation Hymns
The Reformation led to a revitalization of singing and an outpouring of new songs. Luther himself was an avid song writer. Rejoice in God’s providence by singing some classic hymns that have been translated into English:
- A Might Fortress is Our God by Martin Luther
- By Grace Alone adapted from the original by Martin Luther
- I Greet Thee Who My Sure Redeemer Art by John Calvin
5. Study Other Reformers
Although the day is scheduled to commemorate the start of the Reformation with Martin Luther, it’s a great opportunity to learn more about the many other men that God used in the past, such as John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, John Knox, and many other lesser known figures. You can begin with our Reformation history articles and video here on Discerning History.
6. Have a Reformation Feast
In the Bible we see that God wants His people to rejoice before Him in what He has done. Reformat Day is a great opportunity to do that. Gather with friends and family to eat and review and discuss the history and importance of the Reformation. If you have children there are many ways to get them engaged and excited. You could all dress up as Reformation figures. There are other sites online with more ideas for Reformation Day parties.
7. Listen to the Reformation Polka
On a lighter note, you can listen to the “Reformation Polka,” a fun song about Martin Luther set to the tune of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
During the Middle Ages, the knights were the premiere warriors in the European continent, if not the entire world. Battles were won and lost by a relatively small number of knights in complete suits of armor. Although there were other troops on the field, often many of them, in many battles they did not play a decisive role. Yet there was one nearly forgotten group of peasants in the 15th century that defeated knights over and over again – the Hussites. These common folk of Bohemia, modern Czech Republic, were followers of the martyered John Hus, and ideological predecessors of the Protestant Reformation.
The most effective, and famous, commander of the Hussites was Jan Zizka. Today he is something of a national hero for the Czechs, and there is a massive statue of him on Vitkov Hill, the site of one of his greatest victories, overlooking the city of Prague. Zizka had a genius for organizing the Hussites, who were mostly farmers, and turning them into an effective fighting force. He developed several tactics that allowed the Hussites to defeat several crusades that were launched against them by the Catholic Holy Roman Empire.
Zizka knew what had happened when mobs of peasants had faced knights before – complete defeat. He knew that the Hussite’s only chance for victory was through organization, so that is what he set out to do. He made sure that there were clear rules, and clear punishments for violating them. Disobedience to orders was punishable by death. Zizka also trained his armies to march fast and move quickly, so that they could move easily to strike where they were needed.
Once his army had basic training, Zizka did not immediately go out to face his most powerful enemies. He first took opportunities to try small sorties into the surrounding countryside, practicing the drills that they had learned, gaining their weapons and tactics, and experiencing the rush of battle for the first time. Gradually, through much training and practice, Zizka’s farmers were turned into a disciplined fighting force, a feat nearly unheard of at this time in history. Towards the end of his career, Zizka wrote The Statues and Military Ordinances of Zizka’s New Brotherhood, which codified the practices he had fostered in his forces, and established a code of military conduct.
Zizka’s men lacked not only discipline, but weapons and equipment. So they improvised. They were farmers, so they turned farm tools into weapons. One of the most common were the flails, which farmers used to thresh gain. This was a long handle, with a short length of chain and then a shorter stick. These could easily be turned into fearsome weapons by embedding spikes in the shorter part of the flail.
Another thing that farmers would have were wagons, and this is likely where war wagons, the most famous Hussite innovation, originated. The war wagons eventually became critical to the Hussite tactics. They were wagons that were specifically designed to be turned into a fort at a moment’s notice. They were likely the first mass produced military vehicle in history. They were generally plated with iron, with wheels and panels designed to interlock when placed end to end to create a solid wall. There was a high wall on one side of the wagon, and sometimes a roof, to protect the defenders. A ramp came down to allow easy entrance and exit. There was also a container of stones handily for ballast, and to use as missiles if the enemy got too close.
As part of Zizka’s organization, the crew of the wagon was very systematized. It consisted of 20 men, each with a specific role. Two were drivers who were also armed for defense. Two were handgunners, who manned a small gun or cannon which was usually mounted on a swivel in the wagon. Six more were crossbowmen, who could fire and reload in the shelter of the wagon. Four were flailmen, whose improvised weapons worked best against enemies with anything else other than plate armor. Four were halberdiers, who carried halberds, pike-like weapons that were designed to throw fully armored knights to the ground and then finish them off with a quick blow. Two were pavisiers, who carried large shields to provide cover for those carrying flails, halberds, or crossbows, when not in cover behind a wagon.
These wagons were organized into sections of ten. An army would have a total of fifty to a hundred wagons. 50 to 100 total wagons. This provided a way to very quickly build a fort that provided a refuge that heavily knightly cavalry could not easily overcome. The “tabor,” as the wagon forts were called, could even be mobile, as long as the horses survived. Once enemy knights were worn down by attacking the tabor, they would be vulnerable when the Hussites sallied out from the wagons to counterattack.
The Hussites armies were some of the first forces of common men who were able to defeat knights through discipline and good training. They could be called the first step in the downfall of the knights. As technological changes lessened the knights’ supremacy, and other factors changed European society, crowds of pikemen and musketeers replaced the cadre of knights that had ruled the battlefield.
The history of the medieval crusades, at least at a very minimal level, is well known to most people. When we think of the crusades, most of us probably imagine an army of pious Christian knights full of religious zeal going to win back the holy land. There are a few issues with this notion. One is that the crusaders were looking to achieve far more than just pleasing God. While many, especially the common people, were motivated by the pope’s promises that their sins would be forgiven, this religious motive was accompanied by a healthy dose of greed. They sought after plunder, land and power. There is no better example of this than the Fourth Crusade.
Once Pope Innocent III called for a crusade to recapture the Holy Land, crusaders began to slowly organize across Europe. Past crusades had gone overland, but that route was long and dangerous. Instead they would try to go by sea, so they sent envoys to Venice, the great seafaring republic, to organize transportation. Venice agreed to help. They would cease all of their trading voyages for two years to devote all of the city’s energies to transporting and supplying the crusade. But they would do it only for a hefty price. It was one of the most expensive contracts in medieval Europe.
In 1202, as most of the crusading army gathered at Venice, things were shaping up to be a disaster. The contract had specified that the army would number some 33,000 men. The actual number who arrived was closer to a third of that. Worse still, the crusaders didn’t even have the money to pay Venice, and the Venetians were not interested in doing them any favors. As the crusaders arrived, the Venetians dropped them off on a small barren island in the lagoon. It was clear that they weren’t getting off until the cutthroat merchants of Venice got their money.
Venice wanted to be paid, and it became apparent that a negotiation was necessary. Eventually the crusaders and Venetians came to an agreement. Dandelo, the Doge, or Duke of Venice, took the sign of the cross and went on crusade, setting an example for his fellow citizens. However, as the crusade finally set out, they invaded not Muslim lands, but Christian. The crusaders had agreed to pay their debts by attacking Venice’s enemies in surrounding lands. The army of Christendom had been coerced into doing the will of the Venetians. When the Pope received word of what was going on, he was furious. He sent letters threatening, and eventually declaring, the entire crusade excommunicated for attacking fellow Christians. But the leaders of the crusade just did what they pleased, and carefully kept this to themselves, for fear of how the common people would react.
While they wintered in their newly conquered lands, the crusaders received an interesting proposal. A young noble from Constantinople, a son of a recently deposed Byzantine emperor, asked their help in restoring him to his throne. He offered, in exchange, to provide them with gold and silver and send knights to help conquer the Holy land, once he was restored to his kingdom. His promises were ridiculous, as anyone who understood the Byzantine empire would have understood. But since he had no kingdom, he was willing to promise anything for the chance of aid. The crusade was short on funds, and Doge Dandelo gave enthusiastic support for the proposal, so they accepted. For the chance of money and influence, the crusade was going to invade an Orthodox Christian empire.
There ensued in Constantinople a series of complex negotiations and conflicts, both political and military. There were many twists and turns in the story, and desperate and fascinating battles fought. But to summarize the tale, the crusaders eventually laid siege to Constantinople in 1203. They captured the city and put the pretender on the throne as Alexios IV. But the young man discovered that promises are much harder to keep than to make. He was trying to balance the hostile factions in the empire, as well the crusaders who wished to hold in to his word, when a nobleman rose against him, slew him in his palace and was crowned Alexios V. This led to the crusaders laying siege to Constantinople again in 1204. When they regained the city after a hard fought battle, they did not treat it as kindly as the year before. This time the soldiers were let loose to plunder and destroy. One historian wrote:
The Latin soldiery subjected the greatest city in Europe to an indescribable sack. For three days they murdered, raped, looted and destroyed on a scale which even the ancient Vandals and Goths would have found unbelievable. … Greeks were convinced that even the Turks, had they taken the city, would not have been as cruel as the Latin Christians.1
The Byzantine empire was divided up between the crusading forces, and a Latin emperor set up in its place. Although the Byzantines reconquered Constantinople some decades later, Christendom in the east had been dealt a death blow by other Christians. The Byzantines were rendered easy pray for the expanding Turks by the greed of the Fourth Crusade.
Sir Steven Runciman, a historian of the crusades, wrote, “There was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade.”2 While that is hyperbole, the Fourth Crusade was certainly a dark blot on the history of medieval Europe. The original mission of the Crusade was completely reversed. It was totally co-opted by the Venetians and was used as a weapon against their enemies. The opportunistic leaders abandoned any pretense of fighting the Muslims, and instead attacked Orthodox Christians. Although it gained wealth for those involved, the victory was short lived. They left the Byzantine Empire crippled and weakened, easy prey for the Turks. The wickedness of the Fourth Crusade demonstrates how far the medieval Catholic church had strayed from true Christianity.
1. Byzantium and Europe by Speros Vryonis (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967) p. 152.
2. A History of the Crusades by Steven Runciman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951) vol 3, p. 130.
The name of Rome is fearsome in military history. Over the centuries, the Roman legions propelled a small city along the Tiber to rule the entire known Western world. Yet there was one man, more than anyone else, whose name sent shivers through the Romans – Hannibal Barca. Hannibal, a Carthaginian from North Africa, was the most skilled and successful enemy that Rome ever faced. He successfully took an army of thousands of men, along with some elephants, on the very difficult journey across the Alps. He then stayed in Italy for nearly 15 years, with little significant help from Carthage, and defeated every Roman army he faced in a major battle. Although he eventually was recalled to defend Carthage and defeated in battle, he may have come closer than anyone to destroying the Roman Republic. How did he do it? How did he outwit so many Roman commanders? The answers shed light on his impressive achievements, and teach leadership lessons for the present day.
Without a doubt, Hannibal was a very bold soldier. Many of his greatest victories would have been impossible without it. He was not rash, but he knew that if he risked nothing, he would gain nothing. Consider his famous crossing of the Alps. The Alps have been crossed by armies many times throughout history, but never in the way Hannibal did it. He was the first general to take a foreign army across them, that was not from the area and familiar with the terrain. Before the era of maps, this is a shocking achievement. It is very likely that not one of his officers or soldiers had ever crossed the Alps before. It took incredible courage to enter very difficult and unmapped terrain, filled with unknown and hostile tribes, with the only thing waiting for him on the other side being the enemy’s country guarded by the Roman army – the best soldiers in the world. That shows his grit, determination, and fearlessness in the face of mighty obstacles.
2. Always Learning
Often, Hannibal’s bold deeds were not reckless because he had spent time in study and preparation. His Alps crossing was likely conceived years earlier. Much time was spent laying the ground work in gaining knowledge and building relationships before the daring strike. When a foreigner came through Hannibal’s camp, he interviewed them and sought to learn not just the geography of the lands that he had never visited, but their history, customs and culture. Any of this information could prove critical at the proper time. While on campaign, he would disguise himself and travel the countryside, gleaning first hand information from the inhabitants.
As a fruit of all this study, Hannibal was able to remain fresh, fluid and innovative in his tactics. At one point, he did not seek to storm Rome, when many believed he had an opportunity to, because he did not think the time was right. But at a later moment he marched to just outside the city, to threaten the city and relieve pressure from another point. He used seals captured from Romans to send forged messages to Roman units, giving them false orders that suited his purposes. And he used his knowledge of specific enemy commanders against them, exploiting their own personal weaknesses to entice them into a tactical position where he could destroy them.
3. Understanding People
One key to Hannibal’s success was his ability to gain and retain the trust of his troops. Although he was almost completely cut off from support or reinforcement from Carthage for nearly a decade and a half, not once did his troops mutiny against him. He won their love and respect. Many of the ways that he did this were simple things. He made sure, whenever possible, that his men were well fed going into battle. He payed close attention to their attitude, and was ready to give encouragement or an inspiring speech if he saw their spirits flagging. He set rewards clearly before them if they were victorious, inspiring to fight their hardest. Not long after he arrived in Italy, he promised his army their choice of land or money once Italy was won, and promised that slaves who followed their masters into battle would be given their freedom, and that their masters would receive two other slaves to replace them.
Hannibal also was skilled in making allies. His goal in Italy was to break away Rome’s allies and win them over to the fight against Rome. It took great wisdom to win these political victories. Although he did not win enough allies to gain the victory, he always had allied troops fighting with him. When he left Italy after more than a decade, virtually all of his original army was gone. They had been replaced, in large part, by allied recruits, who fought faithfully under him.
4. Brilliant Tactics
Last but not least, Hannibal beat the long odds against him, and was victorious for so long against the Romans, because he had a brilliant mind for tactics. He used the terrain and the weaknesses of the enemy to defeat the superior Roman forces. Over and over again, he was able to find the enemy’s weakest point, and throw his strongest forces against it to win the day. His battles are famous in world history, and for good reason. From Lake Trasimene, where in an unparalleled feat he hid his entire army and ambushed the Romans, to Cannae, where he executed a double envelopment of the Romans opposing him, a feat which generations of generals have tried to replicate.
For years Hannibal sustained a war effort alone, with very little significant support, raising his own finances and new recruits in an enemies country, while holding the affections of his allies and seeking to bring more nations to his side. Although Carthage eventually fell to Rome, there is much that we can learn from his struggle, and his years of wise leadership in the face of incredible adversity.
Next week millions of Americans will watch a total solar eclipse. Now they are a fascinating phenomenon, but in ancient times they were seen as having a much larger impact. At one point one even stopped a battle!